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 Home > News & Policies > November 2003

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
November 20, 2003

Background Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the President's Meeting with Prime Minister Blair
Thistle Marble Arch Hotel
London, England

4:22 P.M. (Local)

MR. McCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. We have a senior administration official here to provide a background briefing on the President's meetings with Prime Minister Blair and also take your questions. I'll turn it over to our briefer now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. I'm here to principally answer your questions. But let me just say that the President and the Prime Minister had far-ranging discussions of the full agenda of issues. As the Prime Minister mentioned in his comments, trade, they talked about Iran, about Iraq, of course, about nonproliferation issues. They had a good discussion at lunch about Afghanistan. They discussed matters of Europe and European defense. So it was a very broad-ranging discussion.

And, of course, the President was able personally to tell the Prime Minister how sorry he is and how sorry the American people are for what has happened to British installations in Turkey today. This is a very sad day, but, of course, just underscores that the war on terrorism goes on, and that these are murderers who will stop at nothing in the murder of innocents for their ambitions. And so it was a very wide-ranging, very warm set of discussions. And I'm happy to take your questions.

Q Do we have any evidence at this point that this was al Qaeda or al Qaeda-related? And what does this do to us in terms of dealing with Turkey, which was our major Muslim ally in the region?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President had had a conversation with Erdogan on Saturday, I believe it was, after the bombings in Istanbul to offer to him continued and, indeed, any enhanced support that we can give to Turkey in what is yet another front in the war on terrorism. Turkey is a strong NATO ally. Turkey is a good partner in the war on terrorism. And I think today just underscores that this worldwide global umbrella of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation that we have is working, and working effectively, but that we've got a long way to go in the war on terrorism.

As to whether al Qaeda is specifically related to this one, I don't think we really know yet, although, these networks of terrorists, obviously, are very closely associated and closely linked and I think no one would be surprised. But we don't have any specific information yet.

Q The President today talked about the possibility of increasing the U.S. troop level in Iraq, if necessary. Are there any current plans to do that, or do you plan to continue with the rotational plan that would bring it down to about 105,000 next summer?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President simply emphasized that what we do is going to be very dependent on what's going on on the ground, and he listens to his commanders to tell him what's going on on the ground. But, if anything, the discussions are in the other direction, that, in fact, his commanders are telling him that we have adequate American force on the ground, that it's a matter of increasing number of Iraqis involved in their own security, because there are things that Iraqis can do against a set of rejectionists of this kind that it's difficult for American forces to do.

After all, I can remember being asked recently, well, why would Iraqis be better at this, better at fighting foreign terrorists, better at fighting Baathists? Well, to begin with, they'll know that they're Baathists, they'll know that they are foreign and not Iraqi. And so there is just a great advantage to having local people involved in security affairs when you're talking about this kind of low-intensity conflict.

It is also the case that the Iraqi people are stepping up to defend their new-won freedoms. The coalition succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein from power, but the securing of the peace and the securing of freedom for Iraq is going to ultimately have to be done by the Iraqis themselves. And so there simply isn't any indication that there would be a need for additional American forces.

The President was asked on what did he base these decisions, was it somehow having to do with other factors, and I think he was just answering that the commanders will help him make that decision. They've told him nothing but it's important to get more Iraqis involved.

Q Has the President talked to Prime Minister Erdogan today, and does he plan to?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He's not talked yet to Prime Minister Erdogan today. I'm certain that he will try to reach him. Obviously, the British have been in contact. I believe that Foreign Minister Straw is on his way to the region, and so we've been very closely connected to the British on this because these were -- this was the British consulate, these were apparently British interests that were attacked. But as I said, the President just spoke with Prime Minister Erdogan on Saturday and I'm sure that he will speak to him again as soon as possible.

Q Could you clarify -- there was some reporting yesterday, based on some of the meetings the President had with members of Parliament, that perhaps there was a real shift coming in terms of Guantanamo Bay, and that perhaps the President would now be willing to release some of the British citizens that are at Guantanamo. If Prime Minister Blair asked for it, he would release them to come here to the UK to be held. Is that true? Is there a shift?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, we've been working with the British for some time now to try and find an accommodation that works. The British have wanted to look at certain aspects of how these military commissions would be conducted. There have been quite detailed discussions about that.

I think Prime Minister Blair said in the Parliament about a month ago that really there were kind of two possibilities; one was that they would find that they were comfortable with the procedures, or that we would probably be prepared to give them -- give these people back to the British under -- to be dealt with in their own system. And so nothing has changed in that regard, and we're continuing to work with the British on that.

Q Did they discuss it today, and -- I guess I'm wondering, too, because of domestic political reasons for Prime Minister Blair, clearly it would be helpful to him politically at home if he could get some kind of movement on this.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the British have wanted to do this in a systematic way, to look at all the facts, to look at how these commissions would be conducted. We've had extensive discussions between lawyers to talk about how this has happened. And they've not been in a hurry to do it fast, they've wanted to do it right. And so I think that we can resolve it at some point in time, when everybody believes that we're at the point that we need to resolve it one way or another. But there's no particular change as a result of right now.

Q Did they discuss it today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, they did, they did. And rather briefly, because there have been so many discussions of this.

Q People here seem to have interpreted today's attack as an attempt to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Great Britain. Is that the way you see it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Jim, I don't think these killers need any excuse to kill. Every time something happens we find a new -- a mega-rationale for why they're doing it. They seem to be willing to take innocent life whenever it suits their fancy. If they were trying to drive a wedge, or if they were trying to challenge the alliance, then they surely failed and did nothing but cement that alliance more strongly. I think you could hear the passion in Prime Minister Blair's voice today, as he talked about what these people are trying to do.

This is a grand struggle. This is not a matter of one battle, of one horrible incident after horrible incident, in Istanbul or in Mombassa, or in Bali or, for that matter, in New York or Washington. This is a war that these people have launched against civilization, against freedom, against tolerance, against openness. And when they do something like this it simply reveals them to be who they are. They kill without any regard for innocent life. And the Prime Minister I think was as strong as possible today with the President in saying that they're simply not going to succeed.

Q Can you tell us how the President learned about this morning's bombings and what his reaction was?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President learned about the bombings this morning in his morning briefing. I think we had heard just before we went in to talk to him, and he learned about it. There was not very much information at that moment. We knew that there had been some bombings in Istanbul; we knew that it had involved British interests somehow. There were stories that perhaps it involved the consulate. But at that time no one had been able actually to communicate with the consulate and it was, as a matter of fact, quite a bit of time before there was actual communication between the British and their consulate. So there weren't many details.

But he reacted as he usually does to these things -- with sadness for those who are affected, families and friends and the victims, but with resolve that this just demonstrates that the war on terrorism is not over, that we've got a long and tough struggle, but that we cannot afford to waiver in any way. In fact, we have to keep emphasizing our resolve.

Q The President has been saying for months that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism. Do you think that's still true? And do you see these latest attacks in Turkey as an attempt to broaden not only the places where al Qaeda and other terrorist groups would attack, but also the kinds of targets that they're going after?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they're clearly going after targets which are -- in which they can kill innocents. I mean, you know this was a -- there was a bank involved and apparently a mall or shopping center of some kind involved; of course, the British consulate was involved, as well. But if you look back over this now pretty bad history since al Qaeda really became active in the '90s, they've struck in a lot of regions of the world. And they are active in a lot of regions in the world. I think the British were talking today about some 60 countries that have had citizens who have lost their lives in this kind of activity. So it's not, I think, a widening in that sense, they've been active in a broad range of places for quite some time.

The reason Iraq, however, is a central front is both because so much is invested there now in terms of winning a battle in the war on terrorism that will demonstrate that you can have a peaceful, prosperous, tolerant, democratizing state in the middle of the Middle East, a region that has given rise to a lot of these ideologies of hatred. So in that sense, it's a central front. And it's a central front because America and the coalition are involved there in a very major way.

And I thought, again, the Prime Minister and the President were eloquent today in talking about how these killers know, these terrorists know that if and when -- when Iraq is successful, that a lot of their propaganda, a lot of their argument for who they are and what they stand for, and that, in a sense, history is on their side, that that argument is going to unravel. And so they're fighting resolutely, but we're fighting more resolutely.

Q Do you have any concern -- second attack in Turkey within the last week or two. Do you have any concern that Turkey might look to aggressively respond either with an attack on targets perhaps in Iraq, or someplace else? Is there going to be a conversation where you attempt to keep them from responding?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have every reason to believe that the Turks will respond like the, unfortunately, the long list of countries that have experienced these kinds of attacks, which is to strongly reinforce intelligence cooperation, to strongly reinforce law enforcement. These kinds of attacks really do put a premium on law enforcement and disruption. And I'm sure that we will go back now and review with the Turks, who are very good partners, how we might be able to increase any capacity. The Turks are very good and we have a lot of confidence in them. These attacks can happen anywhere in the world, but when something like this happens, I think you go back and you redouble your efforts. But, no, we have no reason to believe that it's anything more than that. And I don't think that's likely.

Q You wouldn't be opposed then, or perhaps you would be, if they did decide, we see a target here that we need to strike, if they decide on their own to do that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the target is this terrorist network, and we're all striking at this terrorist network. So I don't see anything outside of the normal way that states respond to this, which is to go after this in terms of law enforcement, to go after it in terms of greater intelligence- sharing. I don't see that it has any implications for any broader Turkish action.

Q I don't want to belabor the point, but I would just like to be clear. You're not denying that the President opened the door to the possibility, depending on circumstances, of sending more troops?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ed, I'm telling you that the President was asked a question -- he gave a logical answer. But there is simply nothing to suggest that the number of American forces would need to increase. There's just nothing to suggest that. In fact, the conversations with the commanders have gone the other way -- let's increase the number of Iraqis because this is not a question of American force levels, this is a question of Iraqi force levels.

Q Can I follow up on Kate's question? We know what Prime Minister Blair has said in the House of Commons, but it's different, obviously, when the President says this. Is the President now saying that he is willing to consider returning British detainees to the UK if the UK and the U.S. cannot agree to the necessary changes in the commissions? And would that also hold for Australia?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It has always been a possibility that in a number of cases -- there are other countries that we are also having discussions with about whether the best course might be to return, to repatriate their nationals. So Great Britain is not the only country with which we're having those discussions. And -- but we're simply not there yet, and the British have, and we have wanted to do this right and to really go through in some detail how all of this would work.

Q Do you expect a chance in schedule tomorrow because of the attacks in Turkey?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we don't expect any change in schedule.

Q Today's evacuation -- during a recent similar incident, the Vice President and Secretary Card were both evacuated, but the whole White House wasn't evacuated, and apparently this weekend marked some kind of milestone with Ramadan. Is there an increased threat of terrorist attack?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not -- we're all not quite clear on the details of what happened back in Washington, but it's my understanding that this was not a formal evacuation, as such, that, in fact, this was resolved rather quickly. But, obviously, we always take whatever safety and security measures are necessary when there is something that's threatening. But I don't think it related to any specific level of threat.

Q Tony Blair today mentioned that 400,000 bodies have been exhumed from Iraq. Can you confirm that number and give us an idea of how many graves?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've heard numbers ranging from 300,000 to as high as 500,000 sort of expected mass graves. They're still unearthing mass graves and they're still doing certifications of, to be graphic about it, how many bodies there actually are there, given deteriorated state of remains and so forth. And so we've seen numbers that are in the hundreds of thousands. It's certainly absolutely at least 300,000 or more; it could be as high as -- I've heard numbers as high as 500,000. But this is a science, as well, which is going and actually exhuming and actually counting, and so they're still in that process.

Q A question about the speech yesterday. The President talked about how the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to Middle East elites for the sake of preserving stability. Clearly, those comments apply to countries like Iran, Iraq, the Palestinian territories -- but do they also encompass Saudi Arabia, Egypt, these kind of Middle Eastern theocracies or strong dictatorships or strong monarchies -- strict monarchies? And, if so, what can we do to change their behavior?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I would call your attention, Bill, to probably I think it's the next line in the speech -- though my memory may be a little imperfect on it -- which talks about holding our friends also to high standards.

Look, we have good friends in the Middle East who are just beginning the process of internal reform. I think we have to be encouraging of that. The President has been especially -- has especially noted that there is, under the Crown Prince, some effort to think about reform -- or to begin reforms, municipal elections and the like.

This is not going to be forced from the outside. These are complicated societies that have their own history and their own traditions and are going to have to find their own way. But what the American President has to do is to speak clearly about the universality of these values; to speak clearly about the fact that without adequately incorporating these values and the means to them in societies you don't really progress in terms of modernity, in terms of economic progress.

I think, unfortunately, in the Middle East, we have a very clear object lesson -- when you have 22 economies that don't have the GDP -- or have a GDP barely of Spain, it's not hard to see that what Arab intellectuals have called the freedom deficit has come at a lot of cost.

So, yes, he's speaking to everybody -- friends, as well as those who have been most brutal. But in talking to friends, we want to be encouraging of trends, we want to be supportive of those who are pressing these trends in those countries, and I think you'll see more of that.

Q Can I follow up? He also talked about how it's not going to happen overnight, it's a very, very long process. Is he basically acknowledging that, say, Saudi Arabia is not going to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy on his watch? In other words, we sort of still have to turn a blind eye in the short-term, don't we?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it's not a matter of turning a blind eye. It's a matter of speaking up for these values, recognizing progress that people have made, recognizing when there are problems. But it does take a long time. Democracy takes a long time. And we in the United States have a 225-plus-year history which has also not been so smooth and has had a lot of turbulence, has had a lot of institutional reform. But what we always had going for us was we had a Bill of Rights and a set of values and a set of institutions to which everybody could appeal -- free man and slave could appeal -- to which Frederick Douglass could appeal as easily as anyone else.

And so what the President really said yesterday that was so important was that he called it out. He talked about it in a way that American Presidents have not been willing to. We've tended not to talk about this, not to talk about the fact that we were prepared to live with authoritarian -- authoritarianism in the search for stability. I would say that that's one of the first times we've actually been willing to admit that this is a problem.

Now, resolving this and working with those who want to find a better way in the Middle East is going to take time, and is going to take patience, and it certainly shouldn't be America all guns blazing going in to try -- don't write that, that was a bad metaphor -- America on the charge -- let me try again. (Laughter.) It shouldn't be America's democracy made in America. It's going to have to be democracy made in these places. But until you recognize the reality of what 60 years of American policy has been, you can't begin to address it.

Last question.

Q One of your colleagues said earlier that the President was aware of protests along his travels the last couple of days, he saw them, he heard them. You've been with him a lot. What was his response when he crossed paths with those people?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: His response has been that people really do have a right to protest and that's part of what makes democracies so vibrant. He also encounters an awful lot of people who wave American flags and who acknowledge the friendship between the United States and Great Britain, just like we have around the world. Not everybody is protesting. As that Guardian poll showed, the British people know that the United States is a force for good, and an awful lot of Britains are very happy to have the President here to submit that.

We've had to do some difficult things, and everybody knows that, and not everybody has agreed with them. But the great thing about democracies is that people can go into the streets and they can protest.

Q So in his private moments when you've been with him, when he's seen these people, he said to you the same thing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. And he says probably with more vigor, "I'm really glad that people in Baghdad and Kabul can do the same thing." And that's the only thing that I think everybody would like people to recognize, which is that it's one thing to protest, nobody likes war; but as the President said, sometimes -- yesterday in his speech -- sometimes evil men have to be, or dangerous men have to be stopped, violent men have to be stopped by violent means. And sometimes the stopping of violent men by violent means leads to the liberation of people. And that's what's happened in Iraq.

And it's fine to protest, but it would be awfully good to remember that 300,000 or 400,000 mass graves, it would be awfully good to remember that when you're protesting, a whole lot of people whose tongues used to be cut out for speaking against the regime, whose children were thrown into prisons, who were thrown into mass graves, who were gassed by this regime no longer have to fear that. And that's worth celebrating, not protesting.

Thank you.

Q Have you told the President about the Guardian poll?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President knows about the Guardian poll. (Laughter.)

END 4:47 P.M. (Local)